Whole30 is a 30-day nutrition plan that emphasizes whole foods and the cutting out of sugar, alcohol, grains, legumes, soy and dairy from participants diets.
The Whole30 program was introduced in 2009 and has proven very popular with many dieters especially among the millennial generation with a New York Times article reporting over one million Instagram posts using the #Whole30 hashtag and consisting of “seemingly endless like-minded communities”.
The Whole30 is similar to the Paleo diet but even more restrictive with the plan not allowing for the use of substitute foods like honey for sweeteners. This restrictiveness has led to it being called one of the hardest diets to follow and ranking last in a 2016 US News & World Reports evaluation of 38 popular diets. Many health and nutrition experts showed concern that no independent study of the Whole30 program has been conducted yet.
On paper, the Whole30 sounds very impressive with claims that 95 percent of participants lose weight without any calorie counting or portion control as such. But weight loss is only a small part of the Whole30 diet with users reporting better sleep, higher levels of energy, improved mental focus and clarity and a general happier disposition. But how does a diet program achieve all this?
Created by sports nutritionists Melissa and Dallas Hartwig in 2009, the Whole30 is a 30-day reset of your eating habits with the belief that certain foods like sugars, grains, alcohol, dairy and legumes have negative effects on your weight, energy and stress levels. It aims to restore a healthy metabolism, improve the health of your digestive tract and balance your immune system. Psychological benefits include a change to the way you think about food by helping to put an end to unhealthy habits, in particular cravings for sugar and carbohydrates.
The Whole30 can seem very restrictive with many rules about what you can and can’t eat. It’s a very unforgiving diet with one of the most famous quotes being:
This is not hard. Beating cancer is hard. Birthing a baby is hard. Losing a parent is hard. Drinking your coffee black. Is. Not. Hard.
The program, as the name suggests, last for 30 days with this being a compromise on the 66 days it takes for a habit change to stick. Let’s take a look at the rules you’ll have to follow for those 30 days and just how hard (or ‘not hard’) the Whole30 is to follow.
What Can You Eat on the Whole30?
Let’s start with the good news. The list of what you can eat looks like something we can all enjoy. The emphasis is on whole, unprocessed foods, that can only be good for you, yes? You can quite easily fill your plate up with vegetables, meat, eggs, seafood, fruit and even healthy fats. Here’s a sample list of the foods you CAN eat:
You can eat the burger, just not the bun.
As much as you like, chicken, turkey, chicken sausages and more.
Fresh fish or even tinned fish is okay.
Unlike many other similar plans, all types of potato are allowed, squashes and most root vegetables are good too.
A good way of keeping the sweet tooth satisfied as there are very few other sweet things allowed.
Natural healthy fats like avocado are not a problem.
Just get used to no milk for a healthier morning drink.
There’s also a whole industry of products which are made for and approved by the Whole30 plan that can make life a little easier. Products like an avocado oil based mayo made with no sugar or dairy, dressings which are sugar, dairy and gluten free or even store cupboard favorites like Franks Red Hot Original Sauce can be found on the Whole30 approved list.
As a rule, grass fed and organic meat is better but simply go with what your budget can stretch to. When choosing products in the supermarket, check the ingredients labels carefully and all the ingredients should usually be easily pronounced or better still have no ingredients label which means the product is just one natural ingredient.
So far so good, most of us can live with that.
But here comes the bad news!
What CAN’T You Eat on the Whole30 Diet?
This is the more important part of the plan, what you shouldn’t eat for the duration of your Whole30 program. Completely eliminating these foods and beverages for 30 days will help stop those cravings, heal your digestive tract, reduce inflammation and impact your energy levels and how you feel in general.
No Sugar and Natural or Artificial Sweeteners
Not allowed maple syrup, honey, agave nectar, stevia, coconut sugar or other substitutes you may use to sweeten food or drinks.
No Alcohol or Tobacco Products
You’re completely booze and tobacco free for a month, alcohol isn’t even allowed in cooking.
Not allowed wheat, rye, barley, oats, corn, rice, millet and bulgur. Gluten-free cereals like quinoa, amaranth and buckwheat are also on the no-go list.
No Beans or Legumes
Beans of all kinds (black, red, pinto, white, kidney, lima, flava etc.), chickpeas, lentils and peanuts including peanut butter must be avoided.
All forms of soy like tofu, miso, soy sauce, tempeh and edamame aren’t allowed.
Dairy is a complete no-no; cow, goat or sheep’s milk and products including milk, cream, cheese, yogurt, sour cream, ice cream or frozen yogurts.
Additives to processed food like carrageenan, MSG or sulfites must be eliminated; if any of these ingredients are found on the label of your favorite drink or food then you must forget them for the 30 days.
Don’t Create Fake Treats
Creating fake treats or snacks using allowed foods is forbidden. Recreating your favorite banned foods with ingredients that are actually allowed defeats the whole point of the Whole30 program meant to be breaking those bad habits. No more cauliflower crust pizzas or paleo pancakes, these are off limits to you.
Phew! Thankfully it’s only for 30 days. The Whole30 founders argue that by the end of the 30 days you’ll not be too bothered about reintroducing many of the foods you’ve forgone, but will reevaluate the foods before introducing them back into your diet.
Exceptions to the Food Lists
To make life easier, or where rules simply aren’t practical to follow there are a few exceptions to the rules and these foods are allowed during your Whole30.
Ghee or Clarified Butter
These two products are the only dairy allowed in your Whole30 eating plan as the milk proteins have been removed by the clarifying process. Eating normal plain butter will still contain these proteins which may impact the results of your Whole30 program.
Are sometimes used in recipes as an ingredient or a natural sweetener. In a very rare sign of compassion, the Whole30 creators have declared these as okay saying the line must be drawn somewhere! (“Well let me have a glass of wine” I hear you say! Unfortunately it doesn’t go that far!)
Peas and Pods
Green beans, sugar snap peas and snow peas are allowed despite being technically legumes, as they’re more of a pod than a bean and greens are good for you.
Most forms of vinegar are allowed including rice, balsamic, apple cider and even red wine vinegar. The only notable exception is malt vinegar which normally contains gluten.
A brewed and naturally fermented soy sauce substitute is acceptable and sometimes referred to as coconut nectar in recipes.
You may be surprised to know it contains sugar. Iodized table salt has sugar, often in the form of dextrose, added to keep the potassium iodide from oxidizing and being lost. Most restaurants and many pre-packaged foods contain salt so again an exception has been granted to salt for the no-sugar rule, mainly out of necessity.
One Final Rule for the 30 Days
Perhaps the main difference with most diets is during the Whole30 program you shouldn’t step on a weighing scale or take body measurements of any kind. Melissa Hartwig, one of the cofounders, doesn’t even like referring to the Whole30 as a ‘diet’. She argues that diets are all about depriving yourself, restrictions, hunger and over tracking or weighing out your food. That sort of behavior isn’t sustainable as many of us who’ve tried strict diets can attest to.
The Whole30 is about so much more than just weight loss, although fitting into that little black dress at the end of it would be a bonus! Squeezing into jeans that are usually to tight may feel good but the Whole30 is about the dramatic and lifelong benefits that a healthy eating plan has to offer.
You’re encouraged to weigh yourself before and after the program so you can see as well as feel the results when your 30 days is over. But during your Whole30 program you should avoid weighing yourself, analyzing your body fat or taking comparative measurements.
Commitment Is Key
The main problem many people have with the Whole30 diet, and certainly the most important part of the plan, is sticking to the rules. It’s only 30 days where you have to focus on making good food choice. You don’t have to search for hundreds of special ingredients or use only organic foods. Just work out which foods stick to the Whole30 rules whether you’re at home, in the supermarket or at a restaurant.
The plan only works if you give it a full 30 days. No cheats, no special occasions and no sins like other programs. This isn’t just strict for the sake of it, but is based on science and experience. The Whole30 works as an elimination diet and just the smallest amounts of any inflammatory foods can stop the healing cycle, mess with blood sugars, promote cravings or disrupt your digestive tract and cause immune system problems. One bite of pizza, a small glass of wine or a lick of the cake mixing spoon can break the reset process and mean you have to start all over again from day one.
The Whole30 will require effort with extra time spent on grocery shopping, planning and preparing your meals, explaining over and over again to friends and family or choosing the best restaurant for your program, but the improved quality of life will be worth it.
The Reintroduction of Foods
One of the most critical parts of the Whole30 plan is what you do afterwards. There’s no point following such a restrictive diet just to become a cookie monster or boozehound as soon as you finish. Not only will you put those pounds straight back on but you’ll also definitely make yourself sick.
For 10 days after you finish the Whole30 you should slowly reintroduce some of the less healthy or off plan foods you’ve been avoiding for the last 30 days. You can then evaluate how these foods make you feel, how they affect your metabolism or digestive tract and what effects they have on your energy levels. You may find that many of the foods you think you’ve missed you can actually live without quite easily.
Try reintroducing the previously banned foods back into your diet, one group at a time while keeping the rest of your food to the Whole30 guidelines. This way you can pinpoint which certain types of food are having what effects. You could even try one group of foods one day and then go back to the Whole30 restrictions for a couple of days to see the difference in your metabolism or digestive system. This following Youtube video looks at the reintroduction process:
Should You Try the Whole30?
That’s a question only you can really answer. There are millions of satisfied customers who’ve used the Whole30 plan for weight loss and a better quality of life, but it is hard. The diet is one of, if not the most, restrictive diet plans out there. You may not have to weigh or measure the food, but the amount of rules and what you can’t eat can put many people off.
If you think you have what it takes to follow the Whole30, by all means give it a go. There are no studies saying it’s bad for you (yet!) so what have you got to lose, except maybe a month of cookies, wine and pizza?! Let’s face it though, that could do most of us some good!